Talkin’ ‘bout a revolution

Published: January 15, 2012
Is a Pakistani Spring on the cards? Analysts contemplate the possibility of radical political change.

Is a Pakistani Spring on the cards? Analysts contemplate the possibility of radical political change.

Is a Pakistani Spring on the cards? Analysts contemplate the possibility of radical political change. Is a Pakistani Spring on the cards? Analysts contemplate the possibility of radical political change.

The word of the day is Revolution, and it’s amazing how the same word can mean so many things to so many people. Talk to the Jamaat-e-Islami and you’ll hear loud calls for an Islamic revolution. Ask Altaf Hussain and he’ll opt for something closer to the French variety. The PPP’s revolution never quite made it beyond the ‘roti, kapra aur makaan’ stage, while the PML-N’s version is really not much more than a counter-revolution. By which I mean a revolution for the sole purpose of countering the much — heralded Imran Khan tsunami. 

As for Imran Khan, he claims that Pakistan is more ripe for a revolution than either Tunisia or Egypt, saying that “never in our history have we had such levels of corruption and such bad governance.” The comparison with the poster countries of the Arab Spring is inevitable, as the toppling of the Arab ancien regimes was perhaps the single most important event of the past year — leaving many in Pakistan watching the dominoes fall feel a mixture of hope and envy. But spring never came our way, let alone an Indian summer. Instead we continue to languish in the winter of our discontent.

Surely the factors that have historically caused revolutions throughout history also exist in Pakistan? Corruption is now part of our daily lives and culture. Inflation and unemployment are rising consistently, while the gap between the rich and the poor grows ever wider. General unrest due to the lack of electricity, gas and even a necessity as basic as food spills out into the streets with increasing regularity and the underprivileged majority suffers, while the rich manage to wade through their lives unaffected. But somehow, the leaky ship of state sails on, and the voice of the people is only briefly heard in news bulletins in between the breaking news. Somehow, the revolution never comes. Why?

For one thing, we do not have a common enemy to rise up against, which appeared to be the case in the Middle Eastern and African countries. “Unlike Egypt or even Tunisia, there is a lot of fragmentation in Pakistan, both political and religious, and the situation is too polarised,” explains political analyst Hasan Askari. “The possibility of a nationwide uprising that involves all sections of the population — all political, ideological and ethnic groups — is very limited.”

Another reason is that freedom of expression was stifled in those countries to the extent that even a small crack led to the bursting of the dam. In Pakistan, by contrast, the media is relatively free. A multitude of private news channels are filled with the voices of the general public expressing their disenchantment with the government, condemning the politicians, and crying over the sad state of their lives. Thus a safety valve is created, allowing popular discontent to find an outlet. But despite its shrillness and conceits, expecting the media to act as a harbinger of revolution is unrealistic. “The owners [of TV channels] are usually the policymakers, thus the objectives of the free press are stifled to mere profit making which in turn affects the standard of journalism,” claims historian Dr Mehdi Hasan.

The result is that, instead of helping people unite towards a revolutionary cause, the ‘activism’ of electronic journalism has only created uncertainty and fear whilst demoralising and confusing people. “Instead of informing them about the realities, it has gestated speculations, rumours and desires,” says Mehdi.

He also points to a factor other than the lack of cohesion and a common enemy: the fact that Pakistan’s dysfunctional political system, believe it or not, has a built-in safety valve: democracy.

“There were no real political parties in either Egypt or Tunisia, whereas in Pakistan, political parties, both before and after Partition, have been working towards democratic and constitutional change,” he says.

But by and large, democracy has thus far failed to deliver the goods, and while we may have no Qaddafi or Mubarak serving as focal points for our collective rage, the entrenched political class and mafias do certainly serve as our personal targets.

To Raza Rumi, the editor of The Friday Times, the failure of democracy is not simply due to the failings of the civilians. Laying blame at the doorstep of the military establishment, he argues that “the civilian government is still not fully in charge; factors like foreign and security policy doled out by unelected foreign bodies with vested interest control the workings of the country.” On some level, it seems that we understand these factors and thus never come out on the streets en masse.

Author and journalist Masud Mufti argues that this is because “the army hijacks the situation in favour of perpetuating its own rule, direct or indirect.” According to him, the army typically manipulates the agitation of the common man for its own advantage, which is why the promised change never comes about. Even a successful revolution, Mufti argues, would only lead to a situation of complete anarchy, resulting in civil war. “Ultimately, our fate would be in the hands of yet another martial law, rather than a revolution moving us towards a truly democratic beginning.”

Whatever the reasons, and whoever we choose to blame, the fact remains that thus far we have only seen false dawns, and that the winds of change that have blown across our political landscape have petered out too soon.

Mufti points to the 1968-69 revolts in Pakistan as an example of an unfulfilled revolution. He actively participated in the riots in Lyallpur and recalls how the movement had electrified society. Recounting the burning hope in the masses, who had all reached their pinnacle of frustration due to the regime of Ayub Khan, he says Yahya Khan was welcomed with open arms as Pakistan was desperate for a change.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s subsequent electoral victory brought along with it another wave of exuberance, but hope soon started fading as even Bhutto and his Peoples Party did little to help those it promised to serve. “Bhutto was a modern man by education but by temperament he was a feudal,” says Mufti.

In an article published in Newsweek, former foreign minister, Yaqub Khan says, “Feudalism is inimical to democracy. Let’s recall the reign of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The man said he was a champion of democracy‚ but he acted autocratically and this showed he was a true feudal. You must understand that feudalism is not merely the fact that someone has large landholdings; it is a state of mind.”

Skip a few decades, and the 2007 lawyers’ movement that helped in the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry, followed by the ousting of former president Pervez Musharraf, was seen as a big win for democracy. The same glimmer of hope that shone in the eyes of the people in 1968 could be seen once again. But what ensued afterwards? Asif Zardari became president and we saw one of the most ineffectual governments in all of Pakistan’s history muddling from crisis to crisis. Meanwhile the lawyers’ movement itself degenerated into farce, with many of its leading lights and foot soldiers displaying the same autocratic behaviour they had fought against when Musharraf was in power.

It’s no surprise then that many are sceptical about the hopes people have pinned to the new rising political ‘hero’ of Pakistan, Imran Khan. The question is whether this predicted tsunami will wash the nation clean of corruption and other diseases or whether we will rebound into yet another cycle of disappointment and despair.

According to Dr Mehdi, “All the successful movements in Pakistan have been so due to the sacrifices of the people, but the following governments are ineffective in bringing about any productive change afterwards.”

Indeed, despite the efforts for real change and freedom, and the heroic events of the past months, so far none of the revolutions in North Africa have secured a certain victory. In Egypt and Tunisia, where dictators were ousted, the ruling classes are making desperate attempts to hang on to their wealth and power. In Pakistan, Mufti feels that even though a revolution in Pakistan is inevitable, right now there is no direction in the country. “Revolution is just being used as a slogan rather than a programme,” he says. Even though the need and desire for change has reached insurmountable heights, the notion of a revolution is merely being glorified rather than used as a tool for bringing about actual change.

So perhaps it is now time that we stopped dreaming about revolution and instead focused on evolution. Until and unless we take it upon ourselves to bring about a change, nothing can be achieved as our history teaches us not to count on heroes who hold out false hopes. Unless the people of the country unite against sectarianism, fundamentalism, corruption and all the other maladies plaguing us, the future of Pakistan will always seem bleak. Unless we build a strong foundation, a solid structure cannot be built atop. And if we can succeed in doing so, without leaning on demagogues, bayonets and utopian visions, then we will have achieved the greatest revolution of all.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 15th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (18)

  • Jan 15, 2012 - 1:27PM

    Nimra Khan, Inshallah Imran Khan will bring the Tsunami revolution in Pakistan !


  • Moiz from Lahore
    Jan 15, 2012 - 1:28PM

    i think PTI is post ethanic party … Imram’s tsunami will wipe out other corrupt faces of our corrupt system … imran has become the symbol of hope .


  • Effan Riaz
    Jan 15, 2012 - 3:06PM

    I totally agree with the author. The time is not for revolution, but for evolution. We should start the change at the grass roots. We can bring about this change by starting to think “What am I doing” instead of always asking “What he/she is doing” and pointing the finger of blame everywhere but on ourselves.


  • Bushra Taimur
    Jan 15, 2012 - 6:47PM

    Very well written! Great job Nimra Khan!


  • Bisma Ahmed
    Jan 15, 2012 - 8:28PM

    Well written perspective


  • Maliha Qadri
    Jan 15, 2012 - 9:01PM

    A very well written article indeed and i can’t agree more that our history has shown no evidence of true hopes as opposed to false hopes. The roti kapra makaan promise, no matter how apt it sounds for a country like ours is actually too primitive. Even if it had been kept, it wouldn’t have taken Pakistan very far in the longrun as it meets day to day needs and is not part of any longterm plan. What our country needs is a vision and short term and longterm plans to be chalked out. Essentially we need to operate like a company. A lot of us have all our hope pinned to Imran Khan, some for the lack of better options and others because they really believe that an educated man who has no corruption charges, no hidden agendas, and immense passion for Pakistan is the answer we have been looking for. My view is that while it is imp that all of us unite for the cause, it is essential that we have a strong leader who we can trust to take us through the rough tide. Quite a few people I talk to want the best for our country but don’t have the courage to do it on their own without a strong leader they can count on. It would be naive to think one Imran Khan can fix everything on his own, but it is a great feeling to finally have hope again. The problem with us is that us – the citizens of the country have been treated sO badly by governments and authorities over and over again that we have become pessimistic. We fund fault in everything and will only change our view after something has been tried and tested. I have faith that Imran Khan will not fail us. What I fear is him not being given a chance to prove himself.


  • Shimra Haan
    Jan 15, 2012 - 10:15PM

    Excellent article. Great writing and good to see an article with ‘revolution’ in the title that actually speaks sense. Shabash Ms. Khan.


  • Ahsan Raza
    Jan 16, 2012 - 1:02AM

    The answer you present in the last paragraph describing an “evolution” is basically the revolution. Pakistan’s problem’s are far entrenched such as corruption, elitism and feudalism which are perpetuated by the Feudal class of the country. They will surely not go away with time, only a revolution can get rid of them. And we are quick to blame the army, this civilian leadership can not provide basic food and water supply to its people and you are going to task them controlling something as critical as foreign policy. Bear in mind, Pakistan is in a neighborhood of wolves. The feudal problem should’ve been taken care of right after partition but they have allowed this sickness to fester and evolve into a greater Evil. Through Imran Khan, we have a chance to give birth to a new political class. One which is educated, serves the people and is largely incorruptible. Wether PTI survives after making such changes is of little concern to me but to get the wheel rolling in the right direction is more critical. The enemy of Pakistan is the corrupt political class and PTI even with its flaws is the answer.


  • Falcon
    Jan 16, 2012 - 3:57AM

    Interesting article.


  • Robin Mitha
    Jan 16, 2012 - 12:26PM

    Democracy in Pakistan especially the sporodic democratic experiment of the 1990-2011 has failed by all accounts. The politicians are openly corrupt and there are many questions as to what benefits have accrued to the people.

    In the current scenario even the emerging new cadre of politicians and political parties is just a case of old wine in new bottles. Even the new kid on the block, the PTI, has contaminated itself with a host of turncoats from other parties who may have dubious credentials.

    It may be argued that what Pakistan may need now is an autocratic ruler for atleast 2 to 3 decades. One who will tax the agriculturists, not spare the rich and reform the military. A setup that would reduce corruption (rooting it out is a utopian dream) and focus on the economy and people development.

    What is clear is that the people of Pakistan deserve better, so we wait and we hope …..


  • Mahvish Malik
    Jan 16, 2012 - 2:44PM

    What a captivating and articulately written article!


  • Nadir Alvi
    Jan 16, 2012 - 11:08PM

    A good, sensible read. Although it’s a bit disconcerting to see the comments and the hope and faith people have in IK. Let’s hope he lives up to it.


  • Asim Mubashir
    Jan 19, 2012 - 2:27PM

    Very well written article. Keep it up.


  • sadaf
    Jan 19, 2012 - 5:22PM

    there are many articles are being written on this topic but i must say i was hooked up on this well articulated article.i agree we must focus on evoloution rather than living in fool’s paradise of revoloution.


  • J
    Jan 19, 2012 - 10:11PM

    ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ – George Orwell. Spot on with the role of the media and the army in this country!


  • Z
    Jan 20, 2012 - 11:53AM

    Very well written. wholesome and practical. thumbs up !


  • Aviator
    Jan 23, 2012 - 3:04AM

    Great article!

    Before talking about grand revolutions, the greatest revolution needs to withing ourselves. Each and every Pakistani needs to ask themselves ‘what can I do to improve myself as a human being?’. We need to stop corrupt practices, stope turning a blind eye to violent extremism, and stop blaming others for our problems. We need to think of others more than ourselves, and do things that will make a positive contribution to society.

    Without changing ourselves, nothing will change after any revolution.


  • Bilal Akbar
    Jan 30, 2012 - 3:13PM

    Great Article,

    I don’t think, Army will take the charge in current poor financial status of Pakistan. I think, Military Establishment also wants a new face, new political system. I hope, Army will also support Imran Khan.


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